This is what the oil market looks like in 2016: Traders and investors this past week had one eye on Algiers, where the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries on Wednesday vowed to cut production for the first time in eight years. And OPEC has one eye on what is happening in the bountiful shale fields from the Permian Basin in Texas to the Bakken formation on the plains of North Dakota, where exploration firms are poised to drill more.
The Algiers declaration is little more than a letter of intent. The 14 members of OPEC said they would trim output by 240,000 to 740,000 barrels a day from the current level of 33.24 million barrels a day, a message that sent crude prices soaring 5 percent. Yet they deferred implementation of this small cut until their Nov. 30 meeting — and more importantly they put off the delicate and divisive task of figuring out who is going to cut how much.
Bank analysts were not impressed. Citigroup issued a report to investors titled “OPEC Kicks the Can Down the Road Yet Again.” Barclays issued one titled “OPEC saves face and kicks the can to November.”
Meanwhile, in the United States, shale oil drillers, who reined in capital spending as prices plunged, are slowly ramping up activity again while finding new ways to make money at moderate prices. And they are poised to drill even more if prices rise in a sustained way. The drilling rig count, while only a quarter of its 2011 peak, has already clawed its way back to 511, up 107 rigs since the low point in May, according to drilling giant Baker Hughes.
Pioneer Natural Resources is one of the big shale players. Chief executive Scott Sheffield said in an email that the company is adding five new rigs now and six more in 2017 for a total of 23 rigs. He said he predicts that U.S. oil production, down 1.1 million barrels a day from its peak, would “flatten” in the first half of 2017 and then start growing again in the second half of next year.
In effect, the oil market now has two swing producers with the geological and financial ability to increase or lower output. The traditional swing producer, Saudi Arabia, has long propped up prices by cutting its own output. But for two years it has been pumping at high levels in an effort to hang onto market share, hoping that low prices would keep global consumption high and drive non-OPEC producers away from costly exploration projects.
The other swing producer is the U.S. shale industry. And the companies in that industry are ready to add production every time the price starts creeping up.
“Shale, even though its short-term, upside potential may be overstated, continues to challenge OPEC in a deep way. The old tool kit doesn’t work very well in this new reality,” said Antoine Halff, former senior official at the International Energy Agency and now a fellow at Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy.
Stability and balance have never been features of oil markets. The impact of price swings is delayed because of the time it takes investment to result in production. And relatively small imbalances — of 2 to 5 percent of the global market — can generate huge price swings because consumers can’t do without oil. Over the past decade, prices have bounced between lows of less than $30 a barrel to highs well over $100.
Now, however, many analysts believe that prices could stay within a $40-to-$55-a-barrel band because of adjustments made by the OPEC cartel and U.S. shale producers to effectively prop up prices at the low end and contain them at the high end. That would be good for American motorists and the trade balance of the United States, which still relies heavily on imported petroleum.
This year global production is outpacing global consumption of 97 million barrels a day, while the Saudis and OPEC wait for consumption to catch up. But it is taking longer than anticipated. The International Energy Agency said in its last monthly report that the “pillars of demand growth — China and India — are wobbling” and “stocks of oil in OECD countries are swelling to levels never seen before.”
The Algiers meeting raises a question: Has Saudi Arabia secured its market share and succeeded in driving rivals outside OPEC away from new projects?
Saudi policy since November 2014 “made perfect sense and has scored some success,” Halff said. The kingdom, Iraq and smaller neighbors in the Persian Gulf “have regained some market share and put a floor under prices. But its success has been slow, limited and remains fragile. And the price is still half of where they’d like it to be.”
The Saudis "succeeded in halting U.S. shale," Pioneer's Sheffield said. U.S. crude oil output has fallen from a peak of 9.6 million barrels a day in June 2015 to the current level of 8.5 million barrels a day, according to the Energy Information Administration. Earlier, after 2008 when shale drilling technology became widespread, U.S. production had soared about 4.5 million barrels a day.
Sheffield said that now U.S. oil output “will grow at a slower pace.” He said that as long as oil stays around $50 to $55 a barrel, new exploration projects and especially deepwater projects “should not proceed.”
But he said if oil prices move above $60 a barrel, “then we will be back into the same cycle again.”
Even at current prices, non-OPEC production is holding up well. Halff noted that Norway has reversed years of output decline and is now producing at its 2011 highs. And, he added, “Russia supply is on the edge of another growth spurt.”
All this makes life difficult for OPEC, which has been manipulating crude oil prices with varying degrees of success since the 1973 oil embargo.
“Those who think that this is a return to the old OPEC should take more seriously the new circumstances of a world with shale and of lower demand growth,” said Edward Morse, head of global commodities research at Citigroup.
“If oil prices get to $55 or above we’d see [shale] output growing again,” he added. “I think the Saudis understand that and that there’s a limit as to how much OPEC can do. I don’t think the Saudis are saying, ‘We’ll go back to the role as the central bank of oil.’ If anything they’re tweaking things to maximize revenues.”
He said oil prices between $50 and $60 a barrel would be enough to “incentivize U.S. shale producers to rebound strongly back to a positive growth path, potentially to the point of not just growing 1 million barrels a day for one year, but seeing sustained growth for several years — and gaining market share at OPEC’s expense.”
He added, “This is the dilemma OPEC faces in the shale era: If the Saudis do take a more active role, its price impact will be limited to small plays around the margins, if it does not wish to lose much market share to shale.”
The Algiers meeting also raised, then sidestepped, the question of whether OPEC can enforce its first output cut since the 2008 financial crisis when the global recession sharply reduced demand for petroleum. The cartel said it would revive country quotas, but last time it tried to impose quotas it ran into old animosities and widely different economic needs.
Saudi Arabia’s rival Iran, long limited by economic sanctions, wants to boost production to 4 million barrels a day or 12 percent of OPEC output, up from its current level of about 3.8 million barrels a day. Iraq, fighting the Islamic State and rebuilding its war-battered regions, also does not want to reduce output.
Libya, Nigeria and Venezuela are seeking to revive production disrupted by political strife, though there is little sign any of them can restore domestic calm.
The main prospect for cuts seems to be countries that need to adjust for other reasons. Saudi Arabia’s domestic oil-fired power plants do not need to work as hard in the winter to supply air conditioning. And Barclays notes that Angola needs to do field maintenance in September and October, temporarily cutting its output by as much as 200,000 barrels a day.
“Look deeper and the ‘deal’ becomes less and less meaningful and more and more rhetorical,” Morse said.
For Saudi Arabia, all this takes place against a background of upheaval. The kingdom has been backing Syrian rebels and waging war in Yemen. It is watching warily as Iran emerges from sanctions. And it is rethinking its own domestic economy so that it becomes less dependent on oil revenue.
The kingdom is distracted, Halff said. It “has launched its national reformation program. OPEC too is in need of transformation,” he said. “OPEC is far from dead, but needs therapy.”
“I think OPEC wants to reestablish some idea that they play a role in the market and, in that sense, they accomplish that goal when prices move with their announcements,” said Sarah Ladislaw, a senior fellow on energy and national security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “How long that can or will last is another question and one based a great deal more on longer term fundamentals.”